Can D'Angelo Transform R&B Again?

The "R&B Jesus" returns—hopefully to fill the gaping void he left 11 years ago.

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If you were on the East Coast of the United States it happened early Thursday evening. You might have found out through Twitter, Facebook, IM, text message, even a phone call: D'Angelo is performing, live, in Stockholm, and it is happening now. Shaky iPhone videos began trickling onto YouTube, hastily written missives sprouting up on music blogs. Following ?uestlove's Twitter feed was like following someone having dinner with a unicorn. The first clip to spread was an eight-minute version of "Chicken Grease," and watching it was a supernatural experience, seeing the ghost of R&B past and just maybe the ghost of R&B future crammed into one man who was, suddenly and most improbably of all, the ghost of R&B present.

It's safe to say John Legend and the Weeknd lost some sleep Thursday night.

Eleven years have passed since Michael Eugene Archer, a.k.a. D'Angelo, last performed in public, his disappearance being one of the great mysteries—and at times, seemingly impending tragedies—in recent pop music. Spin published the most exhaustive investigation into his whereabouts back in 2008, but by that point even among the most devoted he'd become a spectral figure, washed up and left for dead.

It was all a sad thing, because for a long while it had been difficult to remember a time when D'Angelo wasn't the future of R&B. He'd released his remarkable debut album, 1995's Brown Sugar, at the age of 21, the vast majority of which was written, produced, and performed by D'Angelo himself. Like most musical genres, R&B subscribes to a Great Man theory of its own history, and the young prodigy from Richmond, Virginia was quickly anointed heir to a tradition that stretched from Ray to JB to Sly to Stevie to Prince, and hey, throw Marvin and Michael in there for good measure.

He always did like to take his time, and when he finally released his sophomore album, Voodoo, in January of 2000, Brown Sugar was nearly five years old. Voodoo was a difficult and brooding monster of a record, and while years' worth of anticipation pushed it to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, some reviewers were confused and put off. Rolling Stone gave it a tepid three stars, complaining that "long stretches of it are unfocused and unabsorbing."

Hindsight is 20/20, but what most everyone knows now—and, truthfully, a lot of people knew then—is that D'Angelo had made a masterpiece, a revelation, the most darkly brilliant and sonically askew soul record since There's A Riot Goin' On. Voodoo was the first R&B album to effortlessly and completely grasp the revolution that hip-hop had wrought on popular music: its explosion of the conventions of songwriting and soundscape, its wholesale intellectual remapping of musical tradition. Nowhere was this more evident than on "Devil's Pie," a fusion of gospel and hip-hop that's a muttering, snarling dystopia, in which D'Angelo's off-kilter vocals careen against the snares and scratches of Gang Starr's DJ Premier. It's a prophetic and frighteningly original piece of music. Elsewhere, tracks like "Playa Playa," "One Mo' Gin" and "Spanish Joint" pulsed with demented ecstasy, and even more radio-friendly cuts like "Send It On" were stalked by weirdness, mid-'60s Curtis Mayfield filtered through an acid flashback.

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Jack Hamilton has written for Slate, NPR, and Los Angeles Review of Books. This fall, he will be a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  

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